Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Lessons from York: What We Saw: Low-end unloading

Dad and I recently returned from our semi-annual trip to the Train Collectors Association (TCA) Eastern Division toy train meet in York, PA. This is the largest such show in the United States and provides an interesting snapshot of the state of the hobby. 

It can also hint at the current state of collecting in general. As is our tradition, we spent a lot of time discussing what we saw a lot of (and what we didn't) -- and more importantly, the reasons behind them.

A question of imbalance

In the past, this series has talked about what we saw a lot of and what we saw almost none of -- but it was set against the context that of a wide variety of choices. So even if everyone had Madison cars (as they did in 2011), or Lionel diesels from the 1950s (2015), if you looked long enough, you could find an early 1900s Ives piece or a 1950s Kusan train. Big-ticket items such as a 1929 Lionel State Set wouldn't be on every table, but there would two or three (or a few more) scattered throughout the halls.

This time, though, the variety was missing. We saw a lot of two things, and only a smattering of anything else.

Price matters

With rare exceptions, for toy trains desirability pretty much follows original pricing. Top of the line train sets tends to remain the most desirable and command the highest prices. Mid-priced trains tend to be common in collections -- they were made in greater quantities than the high-end trains, and remain more affordable and therefore easy to acquire.

Low-end trains usually sold the best, and so were made in the largest quantities. Their lower quality, though, meant that they don't hold up as well as mid-level trains. Top tier sets, because of their expense, were usually handled very carefully (many only run under the Christmas tree once yearly). If you wanted to play train wreck, it was the low-price trains you did it with.

We saw a lot of these Lionel ten series standard gauge freight cars.
None were in as good a condition as these -- and priced accordingly.

So many low-end trains didn't survive. Those that did usually have condition issues. That makes mint examples of these entry-level trains somewhat desirable. But they're still low-end trains with a limited appeal so that extra value isn't very high.

Low-end Prewar

There were a lot of prewar (before WWII) trains available. We saw O-gauge trains and the larger-scale standard gauge trains from the major toy companies. And they all had one thing in common -- they were all from the lower end of the collecting scale. We saw the bottom-of-the-line sets from Lionel and American Flyer, as well as some others. There were lots of locomotives and rolling stock, but not a lot of accessories (such as stations, signal posts, and lights).

Lionel Junior was created to compete with Marx (see below) at the same
price point. We saw a lot of this at the show.

It was the type of items I'd choose to get rid of if I was downsizing a prewar toy train collection. Remember, most toy collecting is nostalgic -- we want the toys of our youth. Collectors who were youths in the 1930s are in their 80s. If you can only keep some of your collection, you'll want to hold on the best of the best. And what we saw at York was the rest.

All very reasonably priced, and most of it in fair to good condition. Even low-end trains have their fans -- but they're probably holding on the near-mint examples. If you wanted to start a prewar collection, this would have been the show for you -- most every table had some entry-level items.

When Santa couldn't afford Lionel, he went with Marx.
Postwar Marx

Louis Marx and Co. were always the low-price alternatives in the toy train field. They mimicked the offerings of Lionel and American Flyer with the product sold at a fraction of the price. Marx trains have a certain appeal -- they're elaborately lithographed with bright, bold colors and plenty of detail. They're fun toy trains, but they're still cheaply made, and still run third in popularity behind Lionel and American Flyer. You dreamed of Lionel -- but often Marx was what you got instead.

This show we saw a lot of Marx postwar trains. And I think it was also a symptom of downsizing and liquidation. None of it is very valuable, and all of it takes up space. Even if you were a dedicated Marx collector, these were the items you could live without. We saw table after table of the most commonplace engines and freight cars.

Again, if you were just starting out collecting Marx, this would have been a great show. But I wonder. It seems to me that prewar toy trains and postwar Marx are areas of the hobby more people are transitioning out of rather than into. And that makes me wonder how many of the things we saw this year were packed up and taken back home unsold.

Tomorrow: What we didn't see


  1. Ah, Marx - they had a plant in Glendale, WV, a couple of miles from my home town of Moundsville. There's still a museum near the old factory -

  2. I didn't know that! While Marx made what's considered low-end toys in the train market, they excelled in other fields. And even with their trains, they maximized play value and visual appeal while keeping costs low. They may have been second tier, but they were at the top of that tier.